The last day in Africa, Part Two

Sunday, January 17, 2010

I’ve said it before, but a lot can happen in a day on a trip like this. Swimming at the edge of Victoria Falls, having an eggs Benedict breakfast on Livingstone Island, bluffing our way through a five star resort, and walking to Zimbabwe… all that was over by lunch time on my last day in Africa. The afternoon had very very different things in store. I mentioned that we met the guy who runs the bungee jump, right? Well that’s NOT what I did. I went to a different place where, for a mere 85 USD (instead of over a hundred for one lousy bungee jump) I got to do abseiling (rappelling for us North Americans) and a zip line thing called The Flying Fox, and something else called a Gorge Swing. Twice.

My companion for the afternoon was Jon, a guy from a different overland truck that was on the same route we were on. We kept running into him and his truck mates at every campground and struck up a friendship with them. I’d kind of been thinking about a bungee jump but the 85 dollar “Adrenalin Package” seemed like good value for money with some variety thrown in too, so when I found out Jon was going to do the same package I was right in there.

We had a bumpy ride out to the gorge on benches in the open back of a pickup truck accompanied by nine young Spanish guys who piled in and proceeded to talk very loudly, drop things on the road that required we go back and look for them, and generally be a bit annoying. In any case, we made it to the gorge.

A picture of the gorge in question, the name of which I never knew

Nikki and Alex from my truck where there when we arrived – they’d booked the whole day package and had been there since 9am. They looked knackered by the time Jon and I rolled up and ended up packing it in just as we arrived (but before giving us a crucial bit of insider info). Then we got a bit of a briefing and Jon and I hopped to the front of the line while the Spaniards sorted themselves out. It was abseiling first, which I’ve done before, though that was ages ago. Somehow I ended up going first, and acquitted myself fairly decently. Jon started out well but lost the knack about half way down and ended up dangling awkwardly for a while before finding his rhythm again.

Jon getting kitted out for the abseil

And then it was time for the part that Alex and Nikki decided not to warn us about – the walk back up. We were told at our briefing that getting back up from the bottom of the abseil and the gorge swing would be about a 10-15 minutes walk, but that doesn’t really do it justice. It felt like much longer in the heat, especially the first time when we weren’t even sure we were going the right direction. Suddenly it was easy to understand why Alex and Nikki had given up after half a day. Four trips up from the floor of that gorge would be enough for anyone. (And of course I have no pictures of the walk back up because I did not bring my camera with me while I was abseiling.)

Once we made it back up, sweaty and exhausted and puffing, we got ready for the Flying Fox. This was simply a horizontal cable strung across the gorge with a pulley on it. You’d clip in to the pulley and then take a running start off the edge of the cliff and glide as far along the cable as momentum would carry you. The deal was that if you made it all the way to the other side, you’d get your money back. I suspect that’s never happened. However, you do get the chance to strike goofy poses during the leisurely dangling time while they reel you back in to the starting platform.


It was disquieting taking a running leap off the edge of a cliff, but the second time around it was much better. It really was a lot of fun, largely because it didn’t involve the bloody hike up Kilimanjaro before you could try it again.

The main event, though, was definitely the Gorge Swing. They were very crafty about how they get you warmed up for that too. The abseil is quite tame, but it gives you a chance to get used to the harnesses and it does involve going over the edge, albeit in as slow and controlled a way as you want. The Flying Fox requires a bigger leap of faith but you’ve still got the reassuring tug of the clip on your harness telling you that you’re safe. The Gorge Swing is hard core. It’s basically a bungee jump, but instead of going head first and bouncing up and down at the bottom you go upright and swing back and forth at the bottom. But the essentials are the same: you step off a precipice and freefall for a while until a rope or cord gets tension and stops your downward motion (or so you hope).

And once again, somehow I ended up going first. Probably lots of you have done something like this, so you may be familiar with the feeling of standing on the edge. I was a bit surprised at how nervous I was. We had the option of going facing front or back, and though my original intention was to go front-first, when I got up there I changed my mind and decided to go backwards. So I turned around and Fred, the Jump Master (or Gorge Captain or Chief Masochist or whatever he’s called) started to wrap a short piece of webbing around my ankles. I said, “Whoa whoa whoa. What’s that for? I don’t like that!” He said that if I wanted to go backwards it was necessary to strap my legs together so the rope couldn’t get between them while I was falling. I don’t know why it felt so yucky, but it’s just possible that I was not thinking entirely rationally at that point. In any case, I decided to turn around and go forwards.

So there I was, strapped into two different harnesses, standing on the edge of a cliff getting ready to step off. It was incredibly hard. When you bungee jump often they’ll give you a little push to get you going, but that was not the policy here. If you don’t take the step, you don’t go. Finally Fred got me calmed down – they really were a calm and pleasant bunch of guys, which is precisely the kind of people you want around for this kind of thing, I think. So Fred calmed me down and I stood looking out into thin air, and there was a countdown, and I stepped.

It was a 53 metre freefall before the rope took tension and I started swinging and knew I was not going to die. About 174 feet. And this is the part where I’m supposed to say something like, “OH MY GAAAAAAWD, it was SOOOOOOOOO incredible! I LLLOOOOOOOVVVVEEEDDD it!” Yeah, well NOT. Taking that step and experiencing the freefall – it was one of the most unnatural things I’ve ever felt. I didn’t scream because my mind was frozen. It was like I could not process what was going on except that it was wrong wrong wrong. So naturally I hiked up out of the gorge with Jon and we did it again.

Well, the “Adrenalin Package” included two gorge swings after all, and I figured that the second time would be better. I knew what was coming, so I’d be able to enjoy it more. Ummm, no. As soon as I took the step on my second jump, it felt exactly the same. Wrong. Awful. Scary. Jon had gone ahead on our second round and as I was being lowered down he called up to ask how I was. I said, “I’ve decided I don’t like this.” And I really, really meant it. I certainly don’t regret doing it, and I’m glad I went back the second time because now I know, with perfect certainty, that freefall is not my thing. I really hope that the next time the temptation comes along I’ll be able to resist it.

Thankfully they had a cooler of soft drinks and beer, so after our last sweaty hike out of the valley there was a bit of relief. And the driver agreed to make the trip back to the hotel just for us instead of making us wait for all the Spaniards to get finished. The ride was much more pleasant with the addition of a cold beer, and the pool at the campground was cool and refreshing. I had a quiet dinner with a few people from the truck, sitting on the deck overlooking the Zambezi river. And later that evening Fred and Dominic from the Gorge Gang showed up and we had a nice time chatting with them about the afternoon. Fred confirmed about about 15% of people who attempt the swing back out without taking the big step. And he told me that I was traveling - well, falling - at fifteen metres per second. No wondering it felt a bit disquieting.

Sunset on the Zambezi

And, most importantly, no one asked me to step off any more cliffs for the whole rest of the day.

And now I'm in Jordan, getting ready to embark on another organized tour, this one through Jordan and Egypt. It's a real "greatest hits" of the region - Petra, Wadi Rum, Bedouins, camel riding, the pyramids, cruising the Nile, climbing Mount Sinai, the Valley of the Kings - I'm looking forward to it very much. And there will be no camping, except for one night with the Bedouins, and I bet we don't have to flap our dishes.

Africa already seems like a faraway memory, and there are loads of things I never got around to telling you about - like how Charles our cook once gathered up the leftovers from lunch when we were stopped by the road and gave them to a guy nearby who was cutting grass with a scythe, and called him brother. It was just a bag of cold spaghetti and a rinsed-out pickle jar of orange drink, but you could tell the guy really appreciated it.


And I never told you about sausage trees! We saw them on the Serengeti, and when one of the group referred to them as sausage trees, I knew what she meant right away. Then I asked our jeep driver what they're really called and he said, "Sausage trees". And you can see why, it looks like they are growing big salamis:

A Sausage Tree on the Serengeti

And the houses in Malawi and Zambia! We passed by lots of small settlements and most of them were made up of small round huts with wattle-and-daub kind of walls and shaggy thatched roofs that look like they need a haircut. They seemed like something out of another time, yet sometimes you'd see people outside them texting on a cell phone. Africa really is a land of contrasts.

Shaggy houses, in a random spot where we had to stop to change a flat tire. (have a look over at Flickr for shots of the chunk of metal we ran over. Impressive)

And finally let me just say that if I ever, ever, hear the Toto song "Africa" again in my life, I may scream. Honestly, anyone who's ever had to kneel in the mud to pack up a wet tent would never want to "...bless the rains down in Africa". And Paul Simon's "Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes" is on serious probation, too. Ah, Africa.


Karen said...

That is the most incredible sunset photo.

I know Africa had its moments Pam but you continue to see and do things that the rest of us only dream about.

Continue jumping off cliffs my friend.

Ian Timshel said...

Africa certainly seemed like a big bite of the pie. Onward and upward my friend. Now I'm dreaming of middle eastern food.

Unknown said...

All I can say is WOW!!... but only after the throat constriction passed after reading about free fall... ack.
Braver soul than I!

Unknown said...

Someone we all know once said:

"There will be days when I don't know if I can run a marathon. There will be a lifetime knowing I have."

Somehow that also speaks to your current adventures.

No one will ever say this was a wasted year!

Happy Trails...

Rob H.

Kathryn said...

Wow - you packed a lot into that last day!
I know what you mean about the free fall. I jumped off a (much lower) cliff in Hawaii into the water below. It was great until I hit the water and thought all the bones in my body were broken. Next trip back to Maui I looked at the same cliff and thought, "Nope. No, I don't need to experience that again."
Can't wait to hear about Jordan and Egypt.

Lisa said...

Wow...your last day in Africa was truly magical. So nice that you could leave on such a positive and high note...

I teared up as I read about Henry...He was the bestest hound I knew...Well, he was also the only hound I knew, but I bet if I'd met others they wouldn't compare..:)))

Onward and upward...I love reading about your journey...someday I hope to do a fraction of what you have already done...

Lisa said...

For anyone interested I found a link to a video of someone at the exact same spot doing this:

FREAKING scary!!! Pam..I can't believe you did this...TWICE!

Anonymous said...

What a fab adventure: hangin' in a pool at the edge of the world. Hearty congrats. Hey, and here's giraffe factoid for you from the pages of the Freep -- they only sleep an avg of 1.9 hrs/day. Are they cool, or what?

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